Water use in agriculture

Around half of our water impact is accounted for by agriculture, so good water management is essential to conserve water resources.

Working with suppliers

We estimate that half our water impact is accounted for by the water needed to grow agricultural raw materials for our products. Good water management is one of 11 sustainability indicators in our Sustainable Agriculture Code, which we use when assessing suppliers. The Code sets out standards for water and irrigation management and catchment-level water conservation.

We share our expertise on soil management and water-collection techniques with our suppliers. Trenches, dams and catchments can help farmers use water efficiently and can also help improve crop yields.

Conserving water through drip irrigation

Drip irrigation for crops such as tomatoes uses tubes to deliver small quantities of water and nutrients straight to the plants' roots, leading to less wastage and evaporation than with systems such as overhead sprayers.

Drip irrigation also helps create the best growing conditions. Soil doesn't become soaked, which helps prevent mould, so fungicides can be reduced by as much as 50%. The use of some pesticides can also be cut by 25% because they are delivered directly to the roots.

We provide technical support to help farmers convert to drip irrigation, as it is more complicated and expensive to install than other systems. We also work with equipment suppliers to train growers on how to get the best results from the system. These expenses are offset by increased yields and reduced chemical costs. And of course there is also a long-term benefit to the environment from using less crop protection chemicals.

In Brazil, irrigation management has led to a 30% cut in water use, and a 20% increase in tomato crop yield. In India, a set of drip irrigation trial projects reduced water use by 70%.

However, working with smallholder farmers is not easy and success cannot be guaranteed.

Water vulnerability

We use EIGER, a web-based tool, to identify themes related to global climatic change. The tool takes the form of searchable maps and can provide us with information on water vulnerability. This includes information on which areas or regions suffer current water scarcity, or will suffer water scarcity in the future. It also assesses the irrigation water demand for our crops and the different opportunity and risk profiles of two alternative sites. Developed by our sustainable agriculture team, EIGER has subsequently been used by our manufacturing excellence team to assess water scarcity around our factory sites.

The EIGER database was compiled by a range of R&D organisations and institutes.  The information does not date fast and will remain relevant for the next 5-10 years. Read more in the Sustainable agricultural sourcing section.

Preserving water quality

It is equally important to preserve the quality of the water returned back into the ecosystem. We advise our suppliers on the prudent use of pesticides and fertilisers to ensure that water quality is minimally affected. By taking these actions to conserve and preserve water we ensure that our water management strategy does not deprive local communities of their water supplies at the expense of our business activities.

The following are some examples of our work across the world:

Americas

Unilever Stockton, California has been working on the development of drip irrigation to grow tomatoes.  Studies have shown that growers can reduce water use by up to 20% using drip irrigation versus the traditional practice of furrow irrigation. The block preventing more drip irrigation being used has been the initial cost of the drip system, lack of rotational crops that can use drip irrigation and the technical use of the system.  In the last few years Unilever has partnered with several organisations such as the University of California Crop Extension Service, the National Resource Conservation Service, the California Tomato Research Institute, other processors and many growers to explore and promote the use of drip irrigation.  The estimated water savings in the conversion from furrow to drip irrigation is about 6 acre inches or 162 925 gallons per acre.  Unilever Stockton’s growers use approximately 9 000 acres to produce 400 000 tons of tomatoes per season.

Our tomato growers will convert from furrow to drip over the next ten years and this will involve several different growing areas and different types of water basins varying from a severe water shortage to a plentiful supply of water.  All growers are being encouraged to review their water delivery system and educate themselves about the benefits of drip irrigation.  All tomato growing areas are starting to use drip irrigation and all growers are watching their "neighbours" try drip irrigation. Unilever will build on the growers’ success to promote the drip concept.

Most of Unilever Stockton’s tomato growers were using furrow irrigation in 2008 and the plan is to convert 5-10% of our acreage every year to drip irrigation over the next ten years.

We are also working closely with Spanish-speaking irrigators, providing funding and co-funding for training events. In addition, we are bringing together processors and growers to tackle the issue of water scarcity through the Processed Tomato Foundation, which we rejuvenated in November 2009.

Africa

In Tanzania we have been conducting research with academic partners and the Tea Research Institute of Tanzania to understand how tea yield and crop quality are influenced by the amount of water supplied to the crop and the irrigation methods used. The latest trials have concentrated on understanding the advantages and disadvantages of drip irrigation, a method that can achieve very high water use efficiency but at high capital cost.

All the water used for irrigation on our tea estates in Tanzania is harvested from within the farms during the rainy season and then stored on the farms in reservoirs and lakes for use during the dry season. Conserving the high proportion of rainforest within the Tanzanian estates (over 50% of the land area) is also vital to ensure that the catchment characteristics and local weather patterns are maintained.

Widening our scope

We have begun to expand our work at farm level to look at the wider impact of agricultural practices and the consequences of competing demands on water catchment areas. This is important because of the wider impact water quality and resources have on our business. Not only do agricultural practices have the potential to cause off-site impacts, they can also be threatened by other activities, such as industry, that affect the supply and quality of water.

This work has led to some positive outcomes, such as Unilever Tea Tanzania's (UTT) planting of 10 000 trees on its own estates and donating 20 000 indigenous trees to communities in its local water catchment area to help conserve water resources. Tea plants require regular rainfall to produce their best leaves and forests are an important factor in ensuring rainfall patterns remain stable and in protecting water catchment areas. UTT's Biodiversity action plan has set a target to plant 150 000 trees by 2010.

Working with partners

Unilever chairs the SAI Platform’s Working Group on Water and Agriculture. The Group, which focuses on water practices at farm level, is working on a water footprint for the improvement of water management at farm level and SAI Platform members including Unilever started a project in north west India in mid-2010 to develop a water impact calculator. We hope to be able to report on the outcome of this project during 2012.

In June 2009, Unilever's Sustainable Agriculture team published a ' Water’ booklet describing our approach to sustainable water management in the production of agricultural raw materials. The publication covers water use and scarcity, implications for the business and how we work with growers and suppliers to use less water and protect water quality. See download for more.

Related links

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Case studies

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Our latest water booklet showcases the expertise on water management that the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture team has built up through more than ten pilot projects in 15 countries since 1997